How Much Improvement in 2003?

Attention Cowboys fans: Slow your roll on the rampant optimism that has permeated this metropolis since Bill Parcells was hired as coach in January. And to the hardheaded: Please cancel those Super Bowl reservations in Houston.

Yes, Parcells' presence has returned hope to a downtrodden Cowboys organization and with good reason. He is a two-time Super Bowl winner and already regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all-time.

However, his resume identifies him as a proven program rebuilder with successful stints with the Giants, the Patriots and Jets.

But nowhere on it does it say miracle worker.

And never mind the four-year, $18 million contract he was given by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, making him the richest coach in Cowboys history and the linchpin to any dreams of returning America's team to prominence.

Neither man believes the Cowboys are a quick fix and both are looking at 2003 as a year for Parcells to get his football philosophy established in Dallas.

"Why is Bill (Parcells) here?" Jones said. "He's here to instill a winning philosophy, an attitude with this team and he's here because he's done that before, not once, not twice, but three times. Bill is here to teach -- and hopefully for a long time to come -- young men to win and develop a winning atmosphere in the locker room. But we didn't enter this partnership for a quick fix. This 2003 season is important because it will set a tone."

Quite honestly, a tone is likely all they will get to set, thanks to some still unanswered questions and a brutal schedule rated as the second toughest in the league.

The Cowboys decided on Quincy Carter at quarterback during training camp but offensive concerns remain at running back and along the offensive line.

The defense has been handicapped by injuries to nose tackle Willie Blade (knee, at least two games) and cornerback Derek Ross (knee, three games) and a still non-existent pass rush.

As a result the Cowboys could be a lot better on the field but not have a markedly improved won loss record from the past three 5-11 campaigns.

Highlighting the schedule and its strength are a stretch of games affectionately dubbed the Bill Parcells reunion tour. With Cowboys facing the AFC East in interconference play this year, Parcells will have match ups against two his former teams, the Patriots and Jets, as well as former rivals in the Dolphins and Bills.

The bitterness that remains in the Patriots organization over his hasty departure and the feud he still has with Patriots coach and former understudy Bill Belichick makes this game an NFL heavyweight.

That the AFC East as a whole is considered the deepest division in the NFL only adds to the trouble.

The reunion tour also features two games against Parcells' first coaching stop, the New York Giants, a long-standing member of the NFC East and legitimate playoff contender. And then there's the matter of a visit to Tampa Bay to take on the defending Super Bowl champions, who despite the success with Jon Gruden last year are still smarting over the fact that Parcells snubbed their coaching job a year ago.

Although the football God's smiled on the Cowboys with the injury to Atlanta's Michael Vick, sidelining him for the season opener, the schedule makers didn't do them any favors, making when they play teams as tough as who they play.

Consider the Cowboys first eight opponents. They open with Atlanta and then have back-to-back trips to New York with road games against the Jets and the Giants. They come home to face Arizona before playing the Eagles and then head to Detroit before a match up with the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.

They end the first half with a home game against the Redskins. That's a 4-4 start at best and that's assuming they end a two-game losing streak at Detroit the past two years and continue their mastery over the improved Redskins.

History suggests that Parcells teams play better in the second half of the season. Well, they will have to and that still might not be good enough with this schedule.

The final eight begins with a home game against the explosive Bills, followed by a road game at New England, homes games against Carolina and Miami, road games at Philadelphia and Washington, a home game against the Giants and road game against the Saints. That means three of their last four are on the road and six of their last eight against bona fide playoff contenders.

Further compounding the situation is they face Detroit, Washington, Buffalo and New England coming off bye weeks, meaning each will have two weeks to prepare for Dallas.

All told, this has the makings of a 6-10 campaign and a tough inaugural season for Parcells.

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